Since adding the X1 to my photographer’s kit in 2010, I’ve been enjoying the benefits that come with Leica ownership: free Lightroom software, members’ club opportunities and impeccable service. While great, ultimately these perks have also been expected, because one is used to steady excellence from any luxury goods producer with class. But last month I was stunned to receive an invitation to test drive the new Leica M (Typ 240) digital rangefinder, with instructions to contact my nearest Leica dealer about setting up a demo. Hours to shoot? Away from the store? Now that’s something I wasn’t expecting. A rare sense of privilege and delicious bewilderment accompanied all of my dealings with the personable staff at Warsaw’s Mysia location, and last Thursday I checked out a camera and two lenses worth more than a modest new car. And not for hours. For days. Specifically—until the Saturday two days later.
If you’re looking for a proper technical review, keep clicking because mine will be brief. (If even brief technical reviews bore you—skip ahead to the next paragraph.) The 680g magnesium alloy body felt heavy and I found it tough to turn for verticals, though this tells me nothing about how I’d respond to the weight and shape in some time. Despite its obvious digital attributes, the 240 felt and sounded very much like a precision instrument from an era before electronics. The analog viewfinder elicited both wonder and frustration, the latter especially in low light and low-contrast conditions. More than once, I missed the ability to fall back on autofocus. (Unfortunately, I didn’t learn about the potentially useful focus aid overlay function until after my demo.) The lenses I tested were the Elmarit 90/2.8 and the Summicron 35/2.0. Both amazed me, and they seemed to be the perfect pair if I were to settle for two. (Note that the Typ 240 is a rare digital camera equipped with a full-frame sensor, so the indicated focal lengths are classically true to size.) As nice as it was to deploy an actual focusing ring, remembering to adjust aperture on the lens posed the occasional challenge. In fact, I didn’t always remember to stop up or down in the first place: with so many features vying for my attention, my basic ability to compose shots was compromised. Fortunately, there was enough crossover with the X1 for the controls and menus to feel roughly familiar. And I was stunned by the RAW file size and its impact on my image processing workflow: with 24 megapixels and a colossal 48 megabytes, my Lightroom was as slow-loading as it had been with the 8 MP / 9 MB Canon files and the 12 MP / 18 MB X1 files on a previous computer running a relic of a system.
Many of my impressions had less to do with the camera’s capabilities and more with the insight I gained into the experience of taking part in this kind of product evaluation. Yes, I was a potential buyer, and yes, the demo was perhaps a plain attempt to sell me a camera. Yet something about it all felt entirely different from the usual sales-pitchy, predictable marketing. Between the phrasing of the invitation and the coolheaded enthusiasm of the Leica Store staff, this was a genuine, passion-driven, photography-centric adventure, devoid of any overt pressure to get me to buy anything. (It could of course be argued that so behaves the finest marketing of them all, but if so then I’d argue there’s still a reason not to be cynical about it.)
Now consider the contradictory nature of the assessment itself. After all, here was the best camera I’ve ever shot with, but it was in fact not at all likely to produce my best photos. Indeed, the incontrovertible joy I felt at this great opportunity was at odds with a real sense of performance anxiety. Because yes, I was testing the camera—but the camera was testing me right back.
With that, I think it’s time to let the pictures address both the camera’s potential and the capabilities of the photographer.